In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Dr. Robert Cialdini brings up a study conducted to measure “unthinking compliance.”
In the study, a researcher asks a subject if she can cut in line to make copies and phrases the request in one of three ways.
Request 1: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I’m in a rush?”
Request 2: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”
Request 3: “Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies?”
The results: With the first version of the request, 94% of subjects allowed the woman to cut ahead of them in line.
When request two was used, the compliance rate dropped to just 60%. This is interesting because the words “…because I’m in a rush” don’t add any useful information. Of course someone wanting to cut in front of you in a line is in a hurry. They aren’t asking because they would like to wait longer.
The third request contains the same information as the second but also adds some filler in the form of “…because I have to make some copies.”
What was the effect of this useless info? Request number three resulted in a 93% compliance rate.
It appears that when making a decision, the word “because” plays a critical role in determining whether someone says yes or no. All three versions of the request contained the same usable information, yet the two that offered a “because” were significantly more likely to get a positive response.
We like to think that we’re rational beings but in reality there is a lot going on behind the scenes in our mind to determine our behavior. In many cases, our decisions are made by a subconscious impulse – a heuristic – and it is only after the fact that we rationalize or justify the decision with logic in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.
We’re barraged with information and decisions every day and without shortcuts to help expedite simple decisions outside of our consciousness we’d be stuck in line at Starbucks forever trying to figure out why it doesn’t all just taste like coffee.
In a split second decision, especially one with only marginal consequence like letting a person cut in front of you in line, a major factor in whether you allow it to happen or not lies in whether you have a justifiable reason to do so. The “because” provides this reason and suddenly you’re waiting an extra five minutes while a pysch researcher pretends to make copies and you’re barely aware that any cognitive processing occurred.
The actual substance of this “because” is largely irrelevant and marketers know this. Once a person has been tipped even slightly in the direction of making a purchase, all it takes is a few bits of pseudo-useful data (75% stronger muscle-gorging pumps! Contains real strawberry-like flavor!) to bump them over the edge into buying.
This goes beyond the lies that marketers tell us, and extends to the lies we tell ourselves. After all, we’re the ones rationalizing the act afterward.
Just as easily as additional useless information from a marketer or a person trying to save time at the copy machine can be enough for us to rationalize a behavior, it’s possible for us to internally generate our own reasons for doing something. Within the field of cognitive dissonance theory, this is called the generation of “consonant cognitions.”
“I’m going to eat that entire tube of cookie dough because I worked out today.”
“I’ll just skip squats and do some arms stuff instead because someone else is in the rack and I don’t have time to wait.”
As an exercise in self awareness, the next time you catch yourself using the word “because” in your internal dialogue, pay attention to what is actually being rationalized in your mind and try to determine whether you are really thinking things through or if your subconscious is using a feeble consonant cognition to justify an irrational behavior.